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FULL Tirfing (Stenhammar) Malmö 2011 Dike Krantz Hällström Mjörndal

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Information on the Performance
Information about the Recording
  • Published by: SVT  
  • Date Published: 2011  
  • Format: Broadcast
  • Quality Video: 4 Audio:4
  • Subtitles: nosubs  
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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON THIS PERFORMANCE

Stenhammar’s Forgotten Opera Tirfing
Triumphantly Revived in Malmö
31/10/2011 by Goran Forsling
Sweden W. Stenhammar, Tirfing: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Malmö Opera /
Arnold Östman (conductor), Malmö Opera main stage, Malmö, 30.10.2011. (NS)

Hervardur (Martina Dike, foreground), Gullväg (Ulrika Mjörndal)
& Vidar (Daniel Hällström) © Malin Arnesson
Some music critics have a lot to answer for. Tirfing, Wilhelm Stenhammar’s second (and last)
opera was premiered in 1898 at a sold-out Royal Opera in Stockholm. Despite favourable
reactions from the audience and most critics, the composer-cum-critic Wilhelm Petterson-
Berger’s review attacked the libretto and condemned one scene as ‘irredeemably tasteless’.
Despite the fact that he and all other reviewers had praised Stenhammar’s music, Petterson-
Berger’s review helped to ensure that this opera has not been seen or heard in full since the
end of the Royal Opera production in 1901.
The opera is set in the Viking era and inspired by a part of the Hervarar saga, where a fallen
warrior’s daughter retrieves his magical sword Tirfing from his grave. Anna Boberg, an artist,
wrote the libretto as a commentary on the problem that if success is defined by men, women
have to become men to be successful. (A pressure she no doubt felt herself in her career.)
Hervor needs Tirfing to protect herself in the dog-eat-dog world of the Vikings but is forced
by her father’s ghost to deny her femininity in order to receive the sword as her inheritance.
Hervor becomes the warrior Hervardur, and thanks to Tirfing proves successful in battle.
Inevitably, her disguise proves to be her undoing. A love triangle develops in which she falls
in love with Vidar, a brother in arms who finds himself developing his own feelings towards
‘Hervardur’ (this was the ‘irredeemably tasteless’ aspect of the libretto, according to
Petterson-Berger) while his sister Gullväg also falls in love with ‘Hervardur’. When

‘Hervardur’ rejects Gullväg Vidar flies into a rage at the insult and is killed by ‘Hervardur’ in
a duel. Broken-hearted, Hervor returns the sword to her father’s grave and dies.
Malmö Opera secured a fine lead soloist in Martina Dike, a dramatic mezzo-soprano who has
sung regularly at Bayreuth. (This reviewer was enormously impressed by her performance as
Waltraute at the Wermland Opera.) Ms Dike is a perfect fit for the role of Hervor: her rich and
dark voice matches the tragic character. In particular, her singing at the end of Act I (when
she resolves not to reveal her love of Vidar) and at the end of the opera was heartbreakingly
beautiful. Her acting was also convincing throughout, particularly in her scenes with Vidar
(Daniel Hällström).
Mr Hällström was also an excellent choice, with a suitably heroic full baritone and a dashing
figure. He communicated Vidar’s desperate dilemma (his mixed feelings about his sister’s
love for ‘Hervardur’ and his own physical attraction to his friend) very effectively. Ulrika
Mjörndal’s Gullväg also acted and sang well, most of all in the great feast in Act II when her
father has her challenge the men with her riddles (with her hand as the prize for the winner)
and later when she saves ‘Hervardur’ from the vengeance of the other guests after Vidar is
killed.
Bengt Krantz was an impressive stage presence and actor in both his roles (Angantyr and
King Gudmundur) but his voice was slightly unevenly powered. Jakob Högström’s Bard sang
vividly in a song that is an excellent example of Stenhammar’s singer-friendly music.
Stenhammar’s vocal lines soar expressively, but never tax the singers’ breathing or range.
Stenhammar’s music for Tirfing has a clearly Nordic sound. Wagnerian and romantic
influences are present, but Nordic melancholy predominates. Stenhammar’s orchestration is
transparent yet colourful. The music is often beautiful but not generally with its heart on its
sleeve; listeners will not leave the opera house whistling catchy tunes, but they will certainly
feel swept away by a rich musical experience. This is particularly true at Malmö thanks to the
high standard exhibited by the Malmö Opera Orchestra. Arnold Östman’s conducting
demonstrated his close knowledge of the score and proved that he is still at the peak of his
powers after a long and illustrious career.
The set and costumes shifted somewhat uneasily between a post-industrial wasteland in the
Prologue and Epilogue (Hervor’s visits to her father’s grave) and late nineteenth-century high
society in the main body of the opera. Costume designer Constance Hoffman has the
protagonists dressing up as Vikings for a lavish entertainment, in a manner fashionable at the
time the opera was written. (A particularly nice touch was to have a painting by Anna Boberg
hanging over the fireplace.) This interpretation is interesting and the costumes were beautiful,
though Hervor’s return to scruffy modern clothing for the Epilogue is understandably a bit
jarring. That said, the music is so emotionally communicative that no updating is necessary
for the audience to be gripped by the story.
That slight quibble aside, Malmö Opera’s production does more than justice to Stenhammar’s
opera. Its story is compelling and still gives pause for thought today, and the music equals
Stenhammar’s best. Hopefully Malmö Opera’s brave decision to revive this unjustly forgotten
work will mark its return to the repertoire.

In his essay titled “Stenhammar and Wagner” in the booklet to this issue, Bo Wallner
refers to the struggle in the musical world around the turn of the century 1900
between the old and the new. The new was represented by Wagner and the music
drama, the old by Brahms. “When Stenhammar made his debut as a soloist with
orchestra (in March 1892), he gave the first performance in the Nordic countries of
the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms … and when he studied in Berlin during the
1892-93 season his teacher was Heinrich Barth, who belonged to the
Brahms/Joachim circle. Stenhammar – a Brahmsian!”
It is easy to draw that conclusion, but when Wallner scratches on the surface and
reads Stenhammar’s correspondence from Berlin with his mother in Stockholm
(Stenhammar was only just of age) he learns that the young Wilhelm sat at the opera
every other day, hearing Wagner operas. Within one week he saw Tristan und Isolde
and the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen and a couple of weeks later he saw
Siegfried again. He wrote: “I fear that I might end up becoming rather an intense
Wagnerian.”
Stenhammar had shown an interest in Wagner before that, as Wallner goes on to
describe in his essay, most important being his first music drama Gildet på Solhaug
(composed 1892-93). “There is much Wagner in this work, too, although above all it
displays a Nordic folk style.”
Gildet på Solhaug (see review by my colleague Dave Billinge) was premiered in
Stuttgart in 1899 but didn’t reach Stockholm until 1902. By then his second opera,
Tirfing, had already been shown (premiere on 9 December 1898) and it was quite a
success. It was performed 17 times, which was notable for a new Swedish work. It is
a large work, the score encompasses 790 pages and the premiere was scheduled to
last around 3½ hours, according to the premiere poster, which is reproduced in the
booklet. Stenhammar conducted and the title role was sung by Matilda Jungstedt. It
was positively received by the press, with one exception: the notorious Wilhelm
Peterson-Berger, who slammed the work mercilessly. But the most disappointed of
all was Stenhammar himself. A few weeks after the premiere he wrote to his
publisher in Copenhagen: “Tirfing is not written with the heart’s blood. It is written with
ink, black ink on white paper.” There passed more than a century before Tirfing was
seen again.
The present issue is far from complete. With a playing time of slightly under one hour
it presents two essential scenes from the Prelude, the finales from acts one and two
and the postlude. It focuses on the main character, Hervor/Hervardur, and is a real
tour de force for Ingrid Tobiasson. The action takes place during the Viking Age, and
Tirfing is not a person but a magic sword, i.e. a parallel to Nothung, Siegfried’s sword
in Wagner’s Ring cycle – though in old Norse mythology Sigurd’s sword in
Völsungasagan, upon which the Ring is based, is named Gram. Tirfing derives from
another source, Hervarar saga (Hervor’s saga) which was the basis for Anna

Boberg’s libretto to Tirfing. Anna Boberg was married to the architect Ferdinand
Boberg, who around the turn of the century 1900 created a plethora of famous
buildings in the Stockholm area (see footnote), but she was also an artist and author
in her own right. The libretto to Tirfing with its archaic language at times verges on
the pretentious and I suppose that it was the best pieces the Royal Opera Orchestra
chose for the concert performance here released by Sterling.
The Wagnerian influences are very strong and I must admit that the young
Stenhammar – he was only in his mid-twenties when the opera was composed – has
observed and assimilated Wagner’s idiom very well. As in Gildet på Solhaug Nordic
folk tone also plays a role, and that is very prominent at the very beginning of the
opera, where we are on the island of Samsö. A shepherd plays his pipe. The long
beautiful oboe solo certainly lends a Nordic atmosphere to the proceedings, before
Wagner takes over when Hervor makes her entrance. She is a kind of Walküre,
daughter of the Viking Angantyr, who has fallen in battle, and now she searches his
grave to steal his sword Tirfing. She fights with her father’s ghost and wins but has to
relinquish her femininity, since the sword can only be inherited from father to son.
Thus she becomes Hervardur. That’s what happens in the prelude.
In the first act we are at the court of King Gudmund, where the princess Gullväg gets
two visitors. It’s her brother Vidar together with his friend Hervardur (Hervor). Gullväg
falls in love with Hervardur but Hervor feels that she and Vidar are in love. In her
monologue that finishes the act and is recorded here (tr. 3), she regrets this and is
determined to continue on her warrior’s path. She bids farewell to Vidar and tells her
sword: “Come, Tirfing! Still we should be companions.”
Still at the court of King Gudmund in act two a feast is in progress. Gullväg asks three
riddles (as another princess later does in Turandot), Hervardur solves them and the
price is, to his surprise, Gullväg. Hervardur refuses to enter this liaison, Vidar is
upset, there is a fight and Hervardur kills Vidar. Hervardur has to flee, having told
Gullväg his/her true identity. This final scene is also included on this disc.
In the postlude we are back where the prelude started, on the island of Samsö, but
now it’s winter. The stage directions say: “Hervor draws Tirfing. Everything becomes
dark except Tirfing, which flashes and blazes in her raised hand. Suddenly: a deadly
silence. Hervor falls dead, but Tirfing remains hovering in the air above her. It’s
flames die away to a slowly dying glow, until darkness reigns undisturbed.” The
whole postlude is included here and to my mind it is the musical summit of the work.
It has in fact palpable likeness to the Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung and
feels like a final blaze of divine inspiration. These pages were, it seems, “written with
the heart’s blood”! I’m certain that I will return to this score, at least for the postlude.
The playing of The Royal Opera Orchestra under its then chief conductor is beyond
reproach, Jesper Taube and Carina Morling are well inside their small but important

roles, but it is Ingrid Tobiasson’s superb double act as Hervor and Hervardur that will
linger in the memory of the listeners – and I hope they will be many. Tirfing will never
become a repertoire opera, but anything that Wilhelm Stenhammar composed has its
value and it is indeed thrilling to hear how well he canalised his passion for Wagner.
Call it eclecticism, but it is gifted eclecticism – and he soon realised that it wasn’t
really his cup of tea.

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